Sunday, October 22, 2017

Last Call For The Age Of Austerity

As Stan Collender at Forbes does some back-of-the-napkin math on the Trump regime's budget, he comes up with the figure of one trillion dollars: the minimum yearly deficit that we'll run under the GOP's tax cut scam.  We're already looking at $940 billion gap just this year.

1. Congress appears to be ready to increase the amount it will appropriate for military and domestic programs by at least $50 billion a year above what Trump requested.

2. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Trump's executive order ending federal subsidies for the Affordable Care Act will increase the budget deficit by an average of about $19 billion a year.

3. Federal disaster assistance for Harvey, Irma and Maria will be at least $36 billion, with more expected both for additional relief for hurricane victims and for the victims of the fires in northern California. While most of this aid will be spent in fiscal 2018, disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, etc.) requiring a higher-than-budgeted federal response will occur every year and their costs should be included in the permanent projected deficit.

4. If the economy doesn't grow as fast as Trump is promising, additional Pentagon spending is needed for military reasons and interest rates rise more than anticipated because of the increased federal borrowing, consecutive deficits between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion are not out of the question.

In other words, a $1 trillion annual deficit should be considered the minimum of what will occur each year during the Trump presidency.

And that leads us to the optics of adding a trillion dollars a year to the national debt.  No doubt Republicans in Congress won't tolerate it, and that means a trillion or more in yearly cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and the safety net to balance the budget.

Of course, those cuts will be "necessary to save America" as a result.

Even if the Dems can win back Congress in 2018, it's going to be a rough road to recovery, and that's before the very real possibility of another housing crash and economic mega-recession or even full-blown depression.

The forecast doesn't look good, folks.  Not at all.

The Drums Of War, Con't

This Friday news dump story should be a massive alarm bell in the night as to what Trump is planning in the next several months as far as military action.

President Trump signed an executive order Friday allowing the Air Force to recall as many as 1,000 retired pilots to active duty to address a shortage in combat fliers, the White House and Pentagon announced.

By law, only 25 retired officers can be brought back to serve in any one branch. Trump's order removes those caps by expanding a state of national emergency declared by President George W. Bush after 9/11, signaling what could be a significant escalation in the 16-year-old global war on terror.

"We anticipate that the Secretary of Defense will delegate the authority to the Secretary of the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots for up to three years," Navy Cdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

But the executive order itself is not specific to the Air Force, and could conceivably be used in the future to call up more officers and in other branches.

All of a sudden there's a "pilot shortage" in the war against Islamic State?  I don't buy that for a second.  A thousand more combat pilots won't make much of a difference when the goal is to secure land gains against an entrenched enemy.  We already have air superiority against ISIS, it's not like guys who use IEDs have a modern air force.

But I'll tell you who does have an air force, as well as plenty of targets for precision bombing that would require an immediate need to call up a thousand skilled fighter pilots or more.

Iran and North Korea.

This is the back-door draft in action, guys.  The notion that this is going to be only used or even primarily used to take on Islamic State in Africa is ridiculous.

But it makes perfect sense if you're ramping up military action against Tehran or Pyongyang.

Stay tuned.

Sunday Long Read: The Richest Drug Cartel In America

It's impressive what people start paying attention to when you have a drug crisis that starts killing a bunch of Midwestern white folks in small-town America.  The opioid crisis continues to burn through cities across flyover country, and it got its start with OxyContin, that you know.  What you didn't know is that the empire behind the most addictive drug in history is actually one multi-billionaire family, effectively the richest legal drug cartel family on earth.

The newly installed Sackler Courtyard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most glittering places in the developed world. Eleven thousand white porcelain tiles, inlaid like a shattered backgammon board, cover a surface the size of six tennis courts. According to the V&A’s director, the regal setting is intended to serve as a “living room for London,” by which he presumably means a living room for Kensington, the museum’s neighborhood, which is among the world's wealthiest. In late June, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was summoned to consecrate the courtyard, said to be the earth's first outdoor space made of porcelain; stepping onto the ceramic expanse, she silently mouthed, “Wow.”

The Sackler Courtyard is the latest addition to an impressive portfolio. There’s the Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the majestic Temple of Dendur, a sandstone shrine from ancient Egypt; additional Sackler wings at the Louvre and the Royal Academy; stand-alone Sackler museums at Harvard and Peking Universities; and named Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean. The Guggenheim in New York has a Sackler Center, and the American Museum of Natural History has a Sackler Educational Lab. Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid.

The Sackler name is no less prominent among the emerald quads of higher education, where it’s possible to receive degrees from Sackler schools, participate in Sackler colloquiums, take courses from professors with endowed Sackler chairs, and attend annual Sackler lectures on topics such as theoretical astrophysics and human rights. The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science supports research on obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Sackler institutes at Cornell, Columbia, McGill, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex, and King’s College London tackle psychobiology, with an emphasis on early childhood development.

The Sacklers’ philanthropy differs from that of civic populists like Andrew Carnegie, who built hundreds of libraries in small towns, and Bill Gates, whose foundation ministers to global masses. Instead, the family has donated its fortune to blue-chip brands, braiding the family name into the patronage network of the world’s most prestigious, well-endowed institutions. The Sackler name is everywhere, evoking automatic reverence; the Sacklers themselves, however, are rarely seen.

The descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, a pair of psychiatrist brothers from Brooklyn, are members of a billionaire clan with homes scattered across Connecticut, London, Utah, Gstaad, the Hamptons, and, especially, New York City. It was not until 2015 that they were noticed by Forbes, which added them to the list of America’s richest families. The magazine pegged their wealth, shared among twenty heirs, at a conservative $14 billion. (Descendants of Arthur Sackler, Mortimer and Raymond’s older brother, split off decades ago and are mere multi-millionaires.) To a remarkable degree, those who share in the billions appear to have abided by an oath of omertà: Never comment publicly on the source of the family’s wealth.

That may be because the greatest part of that $14 billion fortune tallied by Forbes came from OxyContin, the narcotic painkiller regarded by many public-health experts as among the most dangerous products ever sold on a mass scale. Since 1996, when the drug was brought to market by Purdue Pharma, the American branch of the Sacklers’ pharmaceutical empire, more than two hundred thousand people in the United States have died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription painkillers. Thousands more have died after starting on a prescription opioid and then switching to a drug with a cheaper street price, such as heroin. Not all of these deaths are related to OxyContin—dozens of other painkillers, including generics, have flooded the market in the past thirty years. Nevertheless, Purdue Pharma was the first to achieve a dominant share of the market for long-acting opioids, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, fifty-three thousand Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, more than the thirty-six thousand who died in car crashes in 2015 or the thirty-five thousand who died from gun violence that year. This past July, Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, declared that opioids were killing roughly 142 Americans each day, a tally vividly described as “September 11th every three weeks.” The epidemic has also exacted a crushing financial toll: According to a study published by the American Public Health Association, using data from 2013—before the epidemic entered its current, more virulent phase—the total economic burden from opioid use stood at about $80 billion, adding together health costs, criminal-justice costs, and GDP loss from drug-dependent Americans leaving the workforce. Tobacco remains, by a significant multiple, the country’s most lethal product, responsible for some 480,000 deaths per year. But although billions have been made from tobacco, cars, and firearms, it’s not clear that any of those enterprises has generated a family fortune from a single product that approaches the Sacklers’ haul from OxyContin.

Even so, hardly anyone associates the Sackler name with their company’s lone blockbuster drug. “The Fords, Hewletts, Packards, Johnsons—all those families put their name on their product because they were proud,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine who has written extensively about the opioid crisis. “The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product. They don’t call it ‘Sackler Pharma.’ They don’t call their pills ‘Sackler pills.’ And when they’re questioned, they say, ‘Well, it’s a privately held firm, we’re a family, we like to keep our privacy, you understand.’ ”

To the extent that the Sacklers have cultivated a reputation, it’s for being earnest healers, judicious stewards of scientific progress, and connoisseurs of old and beautiful things. Few are aware that during the crucial period of OxyContin’s development and promotion, Sackler family members actively led Purdue’s day-to-day affairs, filling the majority of its board slots and supplying top executives. By any assessment, the family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and the second have nothing to do with one another.

There's no racket quite like the legalized drug industry, is there?

Russian To Judgment, Con't

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, and his statements on what the Trump regime plans to do in order to prevent Russian interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections is heart-stopping.

The answer, as the Lawfare team points out, is "nothing whatsoever."

The headlines from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday focused on his refusal to answer questions about his conversations with President Donald Trump and his declaration — dragged out of him with all the elegance of a tooth extraction — that he had not yet been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Lost in the back-and-forth and amid focus on his testy exchange with Sen. Al Franken about Russian contacts, however, was a truly damning moment about Sessions’s tenure at the Justice Department thus far.

That moment came not in the context of hostile questioning from a committee Democrat but in a perfectly cordial exchange with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

With Midwestern gentility, the Nebraska senator told Sessions that he wasn’t going to grill him about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Rather, he said, “I would like to continue talking about the Russians but in the context of the long-term objectives that Vladimir Putin has to undermine American institutions and the public trust.… We face a sophisticated long-term effort by a foreign adversary to undermine our foreign policy and our ability to lead in the world by trying to undermining confidence in American institutions.”

Russia will be back in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, Sasse argued. “We live at a time where info ops and propaganda and misinformation are a far more cost-effective way for people to try to weaken the United States of America than by thinking they can outspend us at a military level.… So as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and as a supervisor of multiple components of our intelligence community … do you think we’re doing enough to prepare for future interference by Russia and other foreign adversaries in the information space?”

You’d think this question would be a golden opportunity for Sessions. After all, if you’re a man who has had some — ahem — inconvenient interactions with former Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, you might relish the chance to answer a question about what you are doing to prevent Russian interference in the future, as a chance to go on offense and show how serious you are about tackling a problem that has undermined your reputation.

But Sessions’s answer did not inspire confidence: “Probably not. We’re not. And the matter is so complex that for most of us, we are not able to fully grasp the technical dangers that are out there.”

Sessions acknowledged “disruption and interference, it appears, by Russian officials” and noted that it “requires a real review.” But he said nothing about what the department is doing to ready itself.

Sasse followed up, giving him an explicit chance to spell it out. “So what steps has the department taken,” or should it take, “to learn the lessons of 2016 … in fighting foreign interference?” he asked.

Crickets from Sessions.

The department, he said, is specifically reviewing commercial, rather than political, interference from foreigners and the theft of trade secrets and data — an enforcement priority that in fact long predates the Trump administration. “We’ve got indictments that deal with some of those issues,” he said, perhaps not even realizing that he was not talking about the same subject Sasse was asking about. He noted that the department’s national security division has some “really talented people” — which is true but hardly constitutes a step he is taking to combat the Russia threat. And he touted the FBI’s experts, too. Then he acknowledged that, despite all this, the department’s capabilities are still not at the appropriate level yet.

As to a specific answer to Sasse’s question — that is, what has the department done or is planning to do to confront information operations threats from Russia in the future? Not a word.

Nor will there be.  The fix has been in on Russian collusion for months now, and Sessions has been in on the game since the start.  He's guilty as hell and nobody is more aware of that then Sessions himself.  There will be no defense from Russian interference in our elections going forward as long as the GOP remains in power.

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